No wonder we dream our way through our lives. To be awake, and see it all as it really is…no one could stand that for long.
– Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men
When writers die they become books, which is, after all, not too bad an incarnation.
– Jorge Luis Borges
Terry Pratchett died last week. He was a remarkable man and a remarkable writer who should, if there was any justice to these things, have been a part of the world far longer than he was. I didn’t know him. I would have loved to meet him, but I never did and now I never will. What I knew were his books, the characters he wrote and the stories he told. I know the world he made.
The Discworld started out as a satire on epic fantasy, riotous and irreverent. This is a genre rife with problematic tropes and in the early books Pratchett was always tripping over them, but then stopping – as not enough writers do – to examine them closer. The thing I love most about his work is how he would take one of those tropes and twist it into a shape that made sense. You think all dwarves are male? Actually they have a complex and nuanced perception of gender identity in which femininity is intensely private, and the system is being challenged by dwarves who want to wield their enormous battleaxes whilst also wearing lipstick or sequins or whatever the hell else catches their fancy. You think trolls are stupid? Their neurology is really intended for colder climates and under the right conditions they can master the heights of advanced mathematics.
Pratchett asked the inconvenient questions. When a dragon takes up residence in your city and demands a sacrifice, how is the local law enforcement supposed to respond? What happens to the excess mass when a person is transformed into a toad? If golems exist solely to be given orders, what happens when they start making up their own? How would a religious order react if their god turned up on the doorstep? Each idea makes for fantastic jokes, but it’s humour that makes you think. The best kind.
The character of Death is in every Discworld book. A skeletal, scythe-bearing being in black robes, he is also a grandfather, a cat lover, an adventurer; a conscientious, lonely, loveable person just trying his best. But he’ll get the job done, and done well.
Reading a Pratchett novel makes you believe in people. Not in a sentimental way, since the books are all earthy pragmatism and even the most charming characters are flawed, but a sense of optimism infuses his stories, a belief that we can and will do better. On one of the worst days of my life, I threw myself headfirst into a Discworld novel and for a little while I could breathe properly again. Two years ago I dressed up as Lilith Weatherwax and went to the inaugural Hogswatch in July festival in Brisbane; last year I went again and the white rose of my official ‘inhumation’ sits in a jar of pencils on my desk. Watching Hogfather with my mother is a Christmas tradition, part of the cultural language our family shares. Each of these things is a gift between a writer and the stranger who read his words.
It hurts to know the time of new adventures is over. When someone picks up a book by Terry Pratchett for the first time, they won’t be waiting for a new installment, can’t hope to see those characters again once the final book is read. Other people may write sequels and spin-offs, but they won’t be his. They won’t be real, not to me.
What he wrote is enough. The world he created is a rich tumult of imagination, a place where anything could (and generally did) happen. Maybe he won’t write any new books, but he’ll always have new readers.
When writers die they become books. I think that’s true.
If anyone can get a smile out of Death, it would be Terry Pratchett.